Jailing of officers seen as test of free speech in Jordan

Sunday 12/02/2017
Case against Otoom comes at time of growing dissatisfaction with government policies

Amman - When retired major-general Mohammed Otoom was sum­moned to Jordan’s domestic intelli­gence service over a critical internet comment, he was not too rattled. After all, he was a 30-year veteran of the agency that sought to question him.

To his surprise, Otoom, 63, was detained and has spent weeks in a crowded prison cell.

Seven others, including another ex-officer and a former member of parliament, have been jailed on warrants from the state security court for protesting on social media against the government’s planned price hikes and its purported failure to go after corrupt officials.

The high-profile case spotlights Jordan’s unwritten red lines on pub­lic debate at a time when the US-al­lied kingdom faces growing security threats and an economic downturn accompanied by spikes in poverty and unemployment.

Traditionally, it was permissible to criticise the government while the royal family, religion and the se­curity forces were off limits.

Some say Jordan has further cur­tailed free expression, using secu­rity arguments such as the threat posed by Islamic State (ISIS) ex­tremists to retract political reform promises made after the 2011 “Arab spring” uprisings in the region.

In this context, the detention of members of Jordan’s security and political establishment should be seen as a warning to ordinary Jorda­nians to steer clear of anti-govern­ment protests, said Otoom’s wife, Raeseh.

“This is meant to send a message to the rest of the people so they stay silent,” she said in an interview in her home in a middle-class neigh­bourhood of Amman.

Authorities have suggested, how­ever, that the men pose a threat to national security.

Jordanian Prime Minister Hani Mulki told parliament in mid-Janu­ary that the security court ordered the arrests for allegedly engaging in actions that “could incite public opinion and change the basic situ­ation of the society, in violation of the law”.

Mulki said at the time that the government respects the right to free expression, provided it does not violate the law and “does not com­promise higher national interests”.

Government critics say Jordan has several vaguely worded laws that allow for the prosecution of people expressing their opinions.

Freedom House, a US-based pro-democracy group that has rated Jordan as “not free”, slammed the detention of the senior officials as a violation of the right to free speech. The decision to charge them with in­citement “shows the government’s determination to muffle dissent and criticism”, the group said.

Government spokesman Moham­med Momani declined comment on the case because it is a legal matter. Last month he said the government was weighing new legislation to combat what he described as a rise in hate speech on social media.

The case against Otoom and the others comes at a time of growing dissatisfaction with government policies. Nearly 60% of Jordanians asked said the country is headed in the wrong direction, up from 43% in April, a poll published January 30th by the US-based International Re­publican Institute indicated.

A weak economy, rising prices, administrative and financial corrup­tion, poverty and unemployment were given as top reasons, stated a November survey of 1,000 respond­ents, with a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Discontent is bound to rise with expected price hikes in the coming weeks. The government has said it would increase taxes on some goods to reduce a spiralling budget deficit. On February 1st, the government raised the prices of gasoline, kero­sene and diesel by 3-8%, with part of the increase to be used to help narrow the deficit, state media said.

In recent weeks, retired security officers who previously accused the authorities of not going after sen­ior officials suspected of corruption emerged as critics of the austerity measures. The officers said if the government retrieved millions of dollars allegedly lost to corruption, it would not need to impose new burdens on Jordanians.

Retired lieutenant-colonel Khaled Majali, who served under Otoom, wrote on his website that “7.5 mil­lion Jordanians are screaming loud­ly, ‘Wake up, there is still time to fix things’ and they are ready to renew loyalty” and move to a better future.

Otoom’s wife said her husband posted a brief comment, taken from a poem about the last Arab king of Andalusia, who was told by his mother after losing his throne: “Now cry like women for a throne that you didn’t defend like men”.

Otoom was summoned by the intelligence service after that post, along with former legislator Wasfi Rawashdeh and retired army colo­nel Omar al-Osofi.

Rawashdeh had urged the king in an open letter to be “careful of the ones who are killing the love of the people for you” and criticised what he said was long-standing nepotism. Osofi published an essay about dic­tatorship, his son, Wael, said.

A fourth detainee, Hussam Abdal­lat, who served in the prime minis­ter’s office for 20 years, was arrested after a meeting with other activists at his home to launch an anti-cor­ruption initiative, said his brother, Mohammed.

“What they were calling for is anti-corruption, transparency and free­dom of speech,” Mohammed Abdal­lat said. He said only his brother and another participant in the meeting are still in jail. (The Associated Press)